Within the past several years, media outlets have focused their attention on harsh sentences often handed down to low-level offenders-particularly drug offenders. A story profiled earlier this year about a 19-year-old who is facing life in prison for possessing pot brownies has received widespread attention.
Fortunately, the Department of Justice has taken notice as a result of such public outcry. During a public hearing last year, Attorney General Eric Holder instructed federal prosecutors to examine alternative solutions for individuals facing charges that carry hefty mandatory minimum prison sentences. He also encouraged parole boards to consider releasing elderly inmates serving mandatory sentences who have life-threatening medical conditions.
More recently, President Obama announced plans to expand his clemency authority for those serving life-long prison sentences for nonviolent offenses.
And last month, the U.S. Sentencing Commission-an independent federal government agency that promulgates sentencing guidelines for federal crimes-voted to retroactively reduce the sentencing guidelines for federal drug trafficking offenders.
Amid all of the attention focused on sentences for drug crimes, the Commission now has plans to review the sentencing guidelines for white collar crimes.
Reasons for change
As one law professor and reform advocate puts it, white collar crimes are just as “mixed up and crazy” as drug sentencing guidelines. Sentence structures for drug crimes often correlate to the amount of drugs involved. Similarly, white collar crime sentences are tied to the amount of money involved. Reform advocates indicate that a sentence for a white collar crime should be tied to a defendant’s responsibility rather than the amount of money lost.
The need for prison reform is another reason for the push. The U.S. prison population has skyrocketed in recent decades. The United States has the most people behind bars among developed countries in relation to population. Almost 2.5 million people in the U.S. are presently serving time in prison.
Advocate argue that budget constraints is another reason sentencing structures must change. Incarceration costs taxpayers billions of dollars every year-money that desperately needed to fund infrastructure projects and education.
It remains to be seen what the Commission will do and if they will consider restructuring guidelines for white collar offenses. Guidelines for economic crimes have not been altered in more than 10 years. Amid the stigmatism tied to Bernie Madoff and the actions of Wall Street during the 2008 Great Recession, some judges have even imposed harsher sentences than the present recommendations.
Time will only tell, but as the U.S. prison population continues to soar at astonishing rates, it’s likely something will be done.